This weekend "Total Recall," a remake of Paul Verhoeven's wonderful 1990 sci-fi action movie (itself an adaption of the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), hits theaters nationwide. The film follows Douglas Quaid, a man bored by his mundane life, who undergoes an experimental procedure to have memories implanted in his head. Of course, as is often the case, things don't go according to plan and he ends up uncovering a vast conspiracy.
Memory -- and the way that you can depict memory -- has long been a cinematic obsession. And why shouldn't it be? Scientists say that the way we remember things often resembles the way that movies work --with shots and scenes, strung together in a loose narrative framework (unlike dreams -- those are just wacky).
So it's with "Total Recall" in mind (or is it?) that we look back at the top ten movies about memories. Or, at least the ones that we can remember.
'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004)
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," scripted by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, is ostensibly a romantic comedy but embroidered with tantalizingly speculative science fiction. The film asks the question, If you could have specific memories targeted and then erased, would you? Such is the promise of Lacuna, Inc. (these companies always have vaguely ominous names), an experimental outpost that looks more like a dentist's office, run by an eccentric Tom Wilkinson. In this Russian-nesting-doll-of-a-movie, lovers played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet frequent the office, zapping remembrances both painful and pleasurable. Much of the movie takes place within these memories, as Carrey tries to figure out how to untangle the past from the present and his imagination from reality. Kaufman's unbeatable script and Gondry's playful direction create a palpable visual sensation of how painful memories can be just as important as ones you cherish, and the end result is a movie as heartbreakingly bittersweet as it is joyously romantic.
Before Christopher Nolan was making whip-smart mind-benders that doubled as jumbo-sized Hollywood entertainment, he was crafting smaller scale movies that were just as twisty (and twisted). With his breakthrough 2000 feature "Memento," he told the tale of a vengeful drifter afflicted with short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia is its technical term). As played by Guy Pearce, our incredibly unreliable narrator has to write down what he does and has clues to his wife's rape and murder tattooed all over his body. Unlike most of the movies on this list, which look to replicate a specific aspect of memories or the act of remembrance, "Memento" is the only film to put you inside the head of a man who can't remember what he did several hours prior. The audience member identifies with Pearce because they're feeling exactly what he does -- with temporal shifts and the blurry line between fact and fiction getting blurrier by the moment (right up until its heartbreaking conclusion). For a movie about short-term memory loss, "Memento" sure is unforgettable.
'The Bourne Identity' (2002)
While "Bourne" (which would continue with two films directed by Paul Greengrass, plus a spin-off film that opens later this month) is known mostly for its breathless action set pieces, at its heart, it's all about memory. More specifically, it concerns an amnesiac spy named Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), who is left for dead and forced to piece together his missing time. As Bourne learns more about his past (which he methodically uncovers with forensic detail), you realize that for all of the spectacle, the movie's thematic concerns are about coming to terms with who you are (or who you might have been in the past) and being okay with it. It's more subtle than you'd think and adds a much-appreciated level of identifiable realism to a movie superficially preoccupied with international espionage.
'Solaris' (1972, 2002)
Based on the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, both films -- while differing wildly in pacing, performances and visual aesthetics -- explore the dangerously intoxicating nature of memory, when a psychologist (Donatas Banionis in the original version; George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh's remake) is called to the remote plant of Solaris, where an international space station hovers. It's here that loved ones of crewmembers start appearing. The problem? That those loved ones died many years before. This situation forces our heroic psychologist to come to terms with the visions of his wife and sort out what, exactly, these visions are -- hallucinations, some kind of extraterrestrial intelligence or dead family members actually returned from beyond. Filled with existential dread and spiritual unease, "Solaris" packs big questions about love, obsession, and the lengths we would go to see our loved ones again, in a handsomely rendered science-fiction veneer (one that is sometimes uneasily scary).
'Finding Nemo' (2003)
In Andrew Stanton's animated classic (needlessly getting a sequel in 2016), a father clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) searches for his son, Nemo, amidst the vastness of the open ocean, aided only by Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a Regal tang with short-term memory loss. While often time memory loss is played up for sensationalism (like in the Bourne movies) or pain (any movie that's been made about the protracted agony of Alzheimer's), in "Finding Nemo," the inability to remember is a hurdle, something that can be overcome with enough hard work. When Dory finally does remember, towards the end of the film, it's revelatory and taps into the primal euphoria of trying to remember something and finally succeeding -- whether it be the car key's or someone's birthday. A profound statement on the mechanics of memory... in a movie filled with anthropomorphic fish.
Often, when describing people who lose their memories, the metaphor that's brought up time and time again is a jail -- that the person is a prisoner in their own head. This is made literal in "Oldboy," South Korean director Park Chan-wook's expressive, twisty thriller, about a man (Choi Min-sik) who is locked away for fifteen years without knowing what his crime was. When he's released (from a prison designed like a nightmare hotel), he has to re-acclimatize himself to society while trying to piece together the events of his imprisonment (and those events that led him there). After he discovers the truth, there's an even greater twist... that's far too juicy to give away here. At its heart, "Oldboy" is a classic revenge tail, full of psychological depth and narrative playfulness, and one that issues a simple warning: that sometimes there are memories best left forgotten.
While most movies about memory romanticize the past and the concrete nature of what we can and cannot remember, Akira Kurosawa'smasterpiece investigates the slippery nature of memory and how, when a handful of different characters recount the events surrounding a single rape and murder, the actual truth can be elusive. The events at the heart of "Rashomon" are told several times, from several perspectives (including a woodcutter, and a bandit), with each account offering conflicting details (and, sometimes, sly similarities) about the rape of a samurai's wife (and the after-events of that rape). When you remember something, it's not a direct line to the past, and often gets muddied with things floating around in your brain, and the viewer, while watching "Rashomon," must try to detect what is and isn't real, finally getting a glimpse at the "truth" by the movie's end. It's fascinating and adds psychological depth and structural complexity to an otherwise familiar tale (tons of things have borrowed heavily from the "Rashomon" approach, most notably the underrated John McTiernan thriller "Basic").
Arguably one of last year's best films, "Beginners" tells the story of a young man (Ewan McGregor) dealing with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer, who rightfully won the Oscar for his performance) and a burgeoning romance with a young French actress (played by Melanie Laurent). What's so amazing about "Beginners" is how subtly it depicts the way in which memory works -- how just being in a doorway of your family home can send you back to a memory of your father, followed by an equally powerful memory of your mother, and so on. Unlike "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," it isn't showy in dramatizing memory, but instead is just honest, adding to an overwhelming emotional realism that makes watching "Beginners" without crying nearly impossible. Movies often try to make you see how memory works; "Beginners" makes you feel it.
Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, "Spellbound" is a sweeping romantic melodrama that's dressed up like a psychological thriller. In it, the buttoned-up Dr. Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) becomes suspicious of Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck), the new director of the Vermont mental hospital where she works. Peck's character later confesses that he isn't really Edwardes -- he killed Edwardes, took his place, and can't remember who he is. A total loss of memory can be a lot of things in the movies, including a way to start over, and Hitchcock uses it to great effect in "Spellbound," not just with the Peck character but in the way that Bergman becomes a fuller person by investigating the case. "Spellbound" is also notable for featuring an ace dream sequence designed by surrealist Salvador Dali (which is detailed in some fine special features on the now-out-of-print Criterion DVD).
'Annie Hall' (1977)
While not explicitly about memory, Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (or, in film nerd circles, "The Movie That Beat 'Star Wars' For Best Picture!") is a romantic comedy fractured through the prism of remembrance. Here, Woody Allen plays a predictably Woody Allen-ish character who looks back on the ups and downs of his relationship with the irresistible title character (played by the easily lovable Diane Keaton). While Allen occasionally veers into the more hokey and jokey, he does a remarkable job of recreating how memories of a relationship are reassembled after that relationship's demise. Sometimes these memories are exaggerated, sometimes they veer into the fantastical, and sometimes they're so raw you can barely bring yourself to remember them. But that's life. And love.